From ballet outreach participant to serious trainee

Lakshmanath Raju Sawak (#308) landed a part in ABT's Nutcracker.

With a ready and relaxed smile, Lakshmanath Raju Sawak—Raju to his friends—seems remarkably composed, well beyond his 10 years. Just days before he makes his professional debut as the adorable little mouse in American Ballet Theatre’s new Nutcracker, he’s handling an interview with aplomb. “I decided to try ballet because it’s something I had never done before,” he says matter-of-factly. But Raju’s introduction to ballet was slightly unconventional. It began when American Ballet Theatre’s outreach program came to his elementary school. Now, with encouragement from his teachers and support from his family, he’s enrolled in the children’s division at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.

In many ways Raju’s story exemplifies a successful transition from K–12 outreach student to serious ballet trainee. Arts education outreach programs have become increasingly important to budget-deprived schools. Ballet companies across the country, including ABT, New Orleans Ballet Association, The Washington Ballet and Boston Ballet, offer dance to students in underserved communities. As students learn first position and pliés, teachers from all of these programs keep an eye out for kids who have the ballet spark ignited in them and might be ready to make the transition from a once- or twice-a-week dance enrichment experience to a more intense ballet training program. Of course, there is no magic formula that transforms an interested student into the next Baryshnikov. But in most cases, success stems from the support of teachers and parents working together. “It’s a real ‘takes a village’–type situation,” says Dennis Walters, director of educational outreach at ABT.

Katrina Toews, director of The Washington Ballet’s community engagement program, says her dance teachers look for students with natural facility: good flexibility, strong feet, body awareness. But they also value desire and drive. “There are occasions where we will take children who might not have all the physical criteria, but are academically smart and really enjoy ballet,” Toews says, “or kids who have had significant behavioral issues, and by doing ballet have changed their view of themselves. We want to support that.” To help students make the leap, Toews says the program facilitates conversations among all the stakeholders: classroom teachers, outreach coordinators, school principals and family members.

ABT’s program relies heavily on its own staff and classroom teachers to identify potentially interested students. “We’ve had teachers call us and say, ‘I have this student, he’s interested and has the family support,’” Walters says. “Or, ‘This girl looks like she has a lot of talent and she’s serious about wanting to dance.’”

Though ABT works with students of all ages through high school, Walters concedes that it’s easier for younger students to make the transition. “It’s a little harder if you find someone who’s a sophomore or junior in high school,” he says. “They might be placed in levels with much younger kids because they’ve been training for such a short period of time.” Discussing these issues with outreach students in advance and building close relationships with them helps assuage these challenges. “There’s a lot of mentorship,” he says.

Margaret Tracy, director of the Boston Ballet School, notes that one of the keys to success is a slow and carefully plotted transition into more rigorous training. Citydance, the school’s outreach program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, introduces thousands of Boston public school students to a wide range of dance and music. Out of these interactions, a couple hundred students are selected to attend an additional, free 10-week program at Boston Ballet’s studios. During this time, the students get more in-depth ballet training, and introductions to other styles, from flamenco to modern to Chinese dance. All of these students are then invited to participate in Boston Ballet School’s five-week beginner ballet program, an immersion that prepares them to be integrated into the school year-round. The steady progression from introduction to workshop to immersion gives teachers the chance to assess each student’s depth of interest at each stage.

Though they may be motivated to pursue further training, many outreach students face financial hurdles. New Orleans Ballet Association works in collaboration with the New Orleans Recreation Department to provide free after-school ballet classes to kids ages 6 to 18, most of whom come from low-income households. To remedy the situation, the company provides tights, leotards and shoes, if needed, to after-school students who are invited to participate in the pre-professional program.

Above all, family support is crucial. Select students from The Washington Ballet’s outreach programs are invited to attend a more intense school-year program, which takes place at D.C.’s Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC). The company used to bus students from their schools to THEARC studios and back, but it soon realized that this kept the dance teachers from connecting with parents, which resulted in fewer students making the jump to the year-round ballet school. So the company did away with the buses and instead concentrated on finding kids with families that would help them get to class.

“What we’ve seen over the past two years is that parents are understanding that their children get a lot out of it and really want to come to ballet,” Toews says. “They recognize the value and are willing to make sacrifices. They communicate with us more directly, and that allows us to start creating a relationship.” DT


A former dancer, now teacher, Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

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